I had moved to Pittsfield, MA to work as a computer programmer programming the missile fire control system aboard the US nuclear submarine fleets Polaris and Poseidon. So, the summer of ’67 I watched the Newark uprisings on television and witnessed neighborhoods on fire, the very same streets I had frequented while I lived there. I felt guilty for having left Newark, thinking that if I had stayed I might have been in a position to make a difference. I was only a teacher with a history of activism with the Essex County CORE and the Rutgers branch of the NAACP. Still, I might have been able to do something.
In November of ’67 I did return to Newark and, thus, began my long association with Amiri Baraka. That association included my membership in the Congress of African Peoples, community organizing to help elect Newark’s first black mayor, Ken Gibson, the presidency of the United Community Corporation, New Jersey’s largest anti-poverty agency, membership in the New Jersey delegation to The National Black Political Convention in Gary in 1972 and my candidacy twice for public office.
When moved to Maryland in 1974, I carried with me a love of poetry that Baraka had helped me cultivate. Soon after, I began attending poetry readings sponsored by HoCoPoLitSo. That led to my joining the board and eventually doing ten-year stint as chairman. In 1990, we invited Baraka to read one weekend. He was joined by Jonathan Yardley and Patricia Hempl to talk about memoir on a Friday and to read his poetry on Saturday. That Monday, he read for 500 high school students at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia.
In 1998, HoCoPoLitSo sponsored Baraka to read at the Baltimore Book Festival. But he had also been booked to read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey that same weekend. We found out the day of the book festival that it would be impossible for him to catch a flight or drive to get to Baltimore in time for his reading.
Seeing my anxiety over the situation, my wife, Sandy, suggested that she might be able to find a plane to fly Baraka from Newark to a private airport in Maryland. Always resourceful, she did just that. Using the yellow pages, under charter flights, she found a man with a plane, explained the situation, and negotiated a price. I don’t recall how we got all this done without cell phones!
I waited for over an hour at a small private airport somewhere in northwest Maryland. Finally, a small four-seater, single engine airplane appeared in the sky and began its descent. A door opened and out popped Baraka. He got in the car, and we sped down Route 83, exiting onto the 695 Beltway and made our way to Charles Street. At this point, Baraka announced he had to get something to eat. “I am diabetic,” he said. I double parked just a block or two shy of the festival grounds in Mount Vernon while he jumped out and got some tea and a sandwich. I got as close as possible to the tent where he was to read and he ran down the path leading to the overflowing tent just as he was being introduced.
Despite the arduous schedule of Dodge where he said he had to do everything but “tote that barge and lift that bale with short or no breaks in between” and the rather adventurous trip from Newark to Baltimore, he found the strength and managed to give a stirring reading.
I never did tell him how much his poetry and the other artists he featured at Spirit House (his residence that had a theater on the first level) influenced my love for poetry. How he showed me the magic created when jazz and poetry meet.
So, I say so now.
Thank you, Amiri, for helping me to grow in poetry, in jazz, and in life.
– David Barrett